Opinion

Cheta Nwanze: Chronology Of The Nigerian Civil War #Biafra

Today’s we will be looking at a chronology of the Nigerian Civil War which lasted for 30 months from July 1967 to January 1970. Because of the vexed nature of this issue, almost 50 years later, I will only state facts, there will be no sides taken.

On 30 May 1967, Colonel Emeka Ojukwu, military governor of the Eastern Region, declared independence as the Republic of Biafra. By 2 July, Nigeria started mobilising 1 Area Command NA along Biafra’s northern border for OPUNICORD, the “police action” against the rebels.

War started on 6 July when 1 Area Command NA advanced in two columns into Biafra. Each brigade had three battalions. 1 Brigade, led by Colonel Shuwa, moved along the Ogugu-Ogunga-Nsukka Road in today’s Enugu state with Nsukka as its objective. 2 Brigade, led by Lt. Col Shelpidi, advanced along the Gakem-Obudu-Ogoja Road, towards Obudu in today’s Cross River state. By 10 July, 1 Brigade had captured its initial objectives, and according to HM Njoku could have gone as far as Enugu that day. Njoku, a Biafran commander, reported Biafran troops inflicting wounds on themselves, and suddenly catching malaria to run away. When they did advance towards Enugu, Nigerian troops under the command of Major Obasanjo reached the city centre but could not hold the city. They were repelled by a Biafran regiment under the command of Obasanjo’s best friend, a certain Major Chukwuma Kaduna Nzeogwu. By 12 July, 2 Brigade had captured ALL of its objectives: Gakem, Obudu and Ogoja were back in Nigerian hands.

In the Niger Delta, just before war began General Yakubu Gowon, the Nigerian leader, had pardoned Ijaw nationalist Isaac Adaka Boro who’d declared Niger Delta Republic in 1966. When Biafra seceeded, Boro declared that he’d not swap his Nigerian citizenship for a Biafra dominated by Igbo people. On 26 July 1967, the Lagos Garrison, with members of Boro’s group as members, landed in Bonny with Nigerian Navy support. After securing Bonny, the LGO’s next objective was to capture Port Harcourt, but that action had to be suspend that when Biafra invaded the Midwest.

In the northern sector meanwhile, Nzeogwu, now a Lt. Col, was killed in an ambush on July 29, 1967. This left Enugu open to Nigeria. But despite Obasanjo’s success, he could not move further as resources were redeployed to counter the Midwest invasion. By October 1967, Obasanjo had been redeployed to Army HQ in Lagos, and Lt. Col Danjuma placed in charge of the Enugu sector. Following the successful repuslion of the Midwest invasion, Danjuma moved to capture Enugu, and did on October 4 1967. The Biafran capital was moved to Umuahia. Meanwhile, all the Biafran soldiers captured by Danjuma’s troops were executed in Ogoja.

On 8 August, Biafra invade the previously neutral Midwest with the stated aim of advancing to capture Nigeria’s capital, Lagos. Under the command of Col. Victor Banjo, the 7000 Biafran troops split up at Agbor, Lt. Col. Festus Akagha headed west to Benin. Major Humphrey Chukwuka headed south to Warri, while Lt. Col. Mike Inveso headed north to Auchi. Inveso’s aim after capturing the northern Midwest was to swing back East at Idah, and engage Nigerian troops from their rear, and his troops committed the first mass murder of the war when they massacred Hausa civilians at Okene in today’s Kogi state, an apparent reprisal for the pogroms of a year before.

The Biafran invasion secured the Midwest within one day, but crucially failed to capture David Ejoor, the governor. In Warri, Chukwuka released Major Adewale Ademoyega, one of the Jan 1966 coupists, who then went on to command Biafra’s 19 Battalion. Akagha was meant to secure Benin with a portion of his troops, while Banjo would take the rest and head towards Lagos.

The Biafran invasion of the Midwest ran into trouble at that point as Banjo spent the next three weeks sat in Benin arguing with Ojukwu. Against Banjo’s recommendation, Sam Ogbemudia, Biafra appointed Albert Okonkwo, an Igbo, as governor of the Republic of Benin. Of course, the appointment of an Igbo rather than a Bini man to head the “Republic of Benin” was looked askance by the locals. These three weeks were crucial, as it gave Nigeria time to regroup after the shock of the Biafran invasion of the Midwest.

By September 18, 12 Brigade in Ore, today’s Ondo state, came under attack by Nigeria’s 2 Division led by Col. Murtala Mohammed. 12 Brigade retreated immediately. In their retreat, they bombed the Oluwa Bridge at Ofosu (border between Edo and Ondo today). When 12 Brigade got to Benin, rather than mounting a defense of the city, they looted the Central Bank and harassed civilians. 12 Brigade also killed civilians at Evbuoneka and Urhonigbe, both in today’s Edo state. It is said there was a massacre at Ughelli, in today’s Delta state, but I have no records to show that that did happen. These massacres had the effect of definitely turning the non-Igbo Midwesterners against Igbo speaking people, with sad consequences. Non-Igbo Midwesterners would provide lists of Igbos to Nigerian troops, which would be used for nefarious purposes.

By September 20, Murtala’s 2 Division entered Benin. Some Biafran troops were captured and summarily executed at Benin Prison. Meanwhile, Col. Benjamin Adekunle, and his 3 Marine Commando Division, landed in Warri by sea and captured Sapele and Ughelli. Murtala’s 2 Division continued pursuing the Biafrans eastward, but were frustrated by Biafran tactics of blowing bridges. However, the only really major obstacle was the River Niger, and blowing up that bridge brought 2 Division’s advance to a grinding halt.

The Niger Bridge was blown on October 5, 1967, effectively halting Murtala’s advance east. His troops halted in Asaba, the capital of Delta state today. The direct result of Murtala’s troops stopping in Asaba was the Asaba Massacre two days later, by far the largest in the war. On October 7, 1967, Nigerian soldiers under Col. Murtala Mohammed killed about 800 able-bodied civilian men and boys in Asaba. This massacre prolonged the war because after that Biafrans believed that they would be victims of a Nigerian genocide.

During October of 1967, 2 Division made three attempts to cross the River Niger at Onitsha, and were repulsed three times. To open a new front, Operation Tiger Claw was launched by the Nigerian side in Calabar on 17 October led by Col. Adekunle. On 17 October, troops under Adekunle landed at Calabar which was defended by Biafra’s 8 Battalion under Major Ogbu Oji. Adekunle himself took part in the action which eventually overwhelmed the Biafrans. Oji was wounded and evacuated to Umuahia. He was replaced by Lt. Col David Okafor, while on the Nigerian side, Adekunle was reinforced by Lt. Col. Muhammadu Buhari. As the situation in Calabar worsened for the Biafrans, Ojukwu ordered 7 Battalion under Lt. Col Adigio in to help the situation. Adigio refused because according to him, they were outgunned by the Nigerians. He was replaced by Lt. Col. Akagha who went in. However, by October 20, the day after arriving, Akagha sent a message to Ojukwu that the situation was hopeless in Calabar. To relieve the situation, Ojukwu deployed some of his mercenaries to Calabar, but even they failed to halt the Nigerian advance. Biafran troops surrendered en masse on October 20, 1967 in Calabar and this was the first time that POWs were taken.

Back in the western theatre, Murtala had repeatedly failed to cross to Onitsha, but kept disobeying orders to stop trying. Their only successful crossing was repelled as on landing, rather than engaging the Biafran troops, they looted Onitsha Market. Finally, after failing in two more attempts, at the loss of thousands of his men, he obeyed orders and moved north to Idah. Starting on January 2, 1968, troops under Murtala and Col. Shehu Yar’Adua successfully crossed the Niger River at Idah. Their first encounter was against Biafra’s 53 Brigade led by Maj. Chris Ude and some mercenaries. They were beaten back. 53 Brigade was then reinforced by Col. Inveso, but they couldn’t hold out for too long. On January 19, 2 Division captured Awka, finally placing Onitsha within Nigeria’s reach but it would take a further 2 months. Ojukwu deployed Major Joseph Achuzia to fend off Murtala, and Achuzia counter-attacked and held of Murtala for months. By the middle of February 1968, Murtala took Udi first, then Ozala which cut off Inveso and his men from the rest of Biafra. On March 20, 1968, 2 Division captured Abagana, and with Yar’Adua and Murtala in command, the Battle for Onitsha had begun. In command of the Biafrans in this battle were Joseph Achuzia and Tim Onwutuegwu, one of the Jan 1966 coup plotters. The Battle for Onitsha was very vicious, and lasted for 2 days, but ended with a comprehensive defeat of the Biafrans. On the morning of March 22, the Biafran 11 Division retreated to Nnewi, after heavy casualties on both sides. Nigeria’s success at Onitsha was rewarded with a heavy store of Biafran equipment which was left behind by the defeated troops.

A few days later however, Achuzia scored a major success with the Abagana Ambush where he destroyed a lot of equipment. On March 31, 1968, Achuzia attacked a 96 car Nigerian convoy at Abagana killing 150 Nigerian troops. He failed to kill Murtala. However, the Abagana Ambush had one major tactical victory for Biafra, it knocked the ill-disciplined Murtala out of the war. Murtala wasn’t injured at Abagana, but he was reprimanded by his superiors, and as result went to the UK AWOL.

On March 8 1968, the invasion of Port Harcourt which was to have happened in September 1967 finally started. Nigeria’s 33 Brigade, commanded by Col. Ted Hamman overran Biafran positions at Oron and began heading towards Uyo. At Oron, he linked up with 16 and 17 Brigade under the command of Col. Etuk and Lt. Col. Shande and they proceeded to Opobo. As the Biafrans retreated from the Cross River area, Col. Alani Akinrinade who had been at Bonny launched his offensive. Akinrinade’s troops inflicted heavy casualties on Biafra’s 52 Brigade, which was commanded by Col. Ogbugbo Kalu. By April 1, the Nigerians had captured Onne, but they failed to dig in, and were forced to retreat by mercenaries four days later. However, as the Nigerians retreated from Onne, Biafran troops in Bori for some reason panicked and retreated, giving the Nigerians the initiative.

On May 19, Ojukwu redeployed Maj. Achizia who had proved to be a good defensive fighter to Port Harcourt to defend the city. Achuzia reorganised Biafran defences, made them more effective. But it was a lost cause, Port Harcourt fell five days later.

Trying to seize on the capture of Port Harcourt, Adekunle bragged that he would capture Owerri, Aba and Umuahia in two weeks. On September 2, 1968, Nigeria began shelling Aba, and troops deployed under heavy Biafran fire. This was called Operation OAU. The fighting in Aba was bloody, and involved a lot of house-to-house, and hand-to-hand combat. Casualties on both sides were high. Biafra’s 14 Divison finally surrendered Aba on September 14, 1968 to Major Etuk’s 16 Brigade after heavy casualties on both sides. Four days later, on September 18, 14 Division withdrew from Ohoba and Obinze, both on the outskirts of Owerri, leaving the city open. Etuk took Owerri on September 18, 1968 without a shot fired, a situation which enraged Ojukwu who gave Col. Kalu an ultimatum: either recapture Owerri, or get fired. Kalu as a result ordered counter-attack which successfully recaptured Obinze. Achuzia was redeployed to join the battle. On September 30, Nigeria captured Okigwe, but by then, the Biafrans were being reinforced by the French, which turned things around. Two weeks later, the heavily re-equipped Biafrans under Achuzia had turned the battle around and began making gains. Since Operation OAU started, the Nigerians had lost over 15,000 soldiers, and Adekunle finally asked for help on October 10, 1968.

On October 14, the Nigerians began withdrawing to Port Harcourt, but one division was left isolated in Owerri. They surrendered. By October 15, Biafra had recaptured Aba, and had taken 6,500 Nigerian soldiers prisoner, their biggest success of the war.

Just a quick word here that in November 1968, Biafran troops led by mercenaries, and buoyed by the successes in OAU tried to recapture Onitsha. However, Rolf Steiner and Taffy Williams failed to recapture Onitsha and lost 2000 men in the process, effectively weakening Biafra even more.

After losing Operation OAU, the Nigerians reorganised. Lt. Col Theophilus Danjuma was elevated to lead 1 Division and asked to capture Umuahia. Major Ibrahim Babangida was redeployed to head 82 Battalion, and asked to capture and hold Uzuakoli. He got injured in the fighting. On the Biafran side, Ojukwu replaced Tim Onwutuegwu with Joe Achuzia, task: to defend Umuahia at all costs.

However, on April 19, Danjuma’s troops broke through outside Uzuakoli, under 5 km from Umuahia and advanced despite the obstacles. Faced with imminent defeat, and finding that he had no reinforcements with which to work with, Achuzia withdrew from Umuahia on April 22. 1969. Umuahia was never recaptured by Biafra, and in the meantime, Nigeria removed Adekunle from 3 Marine Commando and replaced him with Col. Obasanjo.

The war settled into a period of stalemate from the fall of Umuahia until the final offensive which was called Operation Tail-Wind. It was during this period that massive starvation and disease occurred in the tiny Biafran enclave centered around Owerri. Finally, on January 7, 1970, Obasanjo launched his offensive with the target of capturing Uli, Biafra’s last airstrip. On January 9, 1970, Owerri was captured by the Nigerians putting Uli in grave danger of being captured by Obasanjo’s troops. In the Battle for Owerri, Obasanjo’s troops got their biggest prize capturing Col. Joseph Achuzia, which essentially broke Biafran morale.

Capture would have trapped Ojukwu, so the next day, Ojukwu fled to the Ivory Coast from the Uli Airstrip, leaving Philip Effiong in charge. The very next day, Janaury 11, 1970, Uli fell to Nigerian troops, effectively ending the war on the battlefield. A few belligerent Biafran troops led by Tim Onwutuegwu continued fighting, but this ended when Onwutuegwu was killed on January 12.

On Janaury 15, 1970, General Effiong signed the instrument of surrender and declared that all Biafrans were now, once again, Nigerians.

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Cheta Nwanze writes from Lagos

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